7 July 2018

Lootboxes done right

    Lootboxes have been a sensitive topic for a couple years now. With lots of games being accused of abusing them in a predatory nature, likening them to gambling and worried how they prey on people's compulsions; especially the more vulnerable audience, those with mental health issues, gambling problems, or less mature players. I think there is a lot of merit to lootboxes despite this, and don't want to see it completely removed from gaming, however even as a defender of lootboxes can't overlook that they have been abused in games they aren't welcome for the sake of profit. In this article, I wish to explore the subject further, both the good and bad sides of the argument.

    The con's of lootboxes have been discussed by many since their popularisation, the fact that they appeal to people who find it difficult saying no is very apparent, it feels like everyone can give personal examples of people who have spent money they really shouldn't have on this stuff. I personally have seen a boy in college, who can barely pay for heating, burning $100's his currency on Fortnite's loot-llama's. At the very start of the whole lootbox thing, I personally spent $60 on Overwatch loot-crates before realising it was gone, it wasn't until I was checking my budgeting I realised how much I had burned, and promised myself not to fall for that trap again. There is a very real concern about this, because for some people losing that kind of money isn't a big deal, but for other's you only get so much money, and have to make every last penny count, even going as far as pirating games you want to support, because you just can't cough up the money for it right now. Lootboxes have also been likened to gambling in many ways, much like you spin a slot machine hoping for a payout, you roll the dice and bless the god's of chance that the item inside your lootbox is the one you wanted. They have perfected lootboxes down to a science, right down to making fancy animations that are fun and feel good when we click them, the same way slot machines have lots of flashing lights and maybe a theme we'd enjoy. It's awful that it can leave so many players feeling bad about their purchase, they spend so much money looking for a particular item from this box almost expecting to get it, and when they don't get that, they can feel dissatisfied and gives them one of two ultimatums. Either they suck up the wasted money, or they try again until they do get what they want.

    However it isn't all doom and gloom, lootboxes can create scenario's and gamestates unlike any other, people can end up with truly unique stories based off the random effects the entire game is built around. We see a similar technique used in games like The Binding of Isaac and Spelunky where because everything is procedurally generated, nothing is truly predictable. You play long enough you might recognise certain rooms or tiles, but there are so many different combinations and possibilities, the chance of you actually seeing the same floor layout is so low it's basically impossible. This create's a unique experience for the player, they know that no-one else has had quite the same experience they've had, and it encourages discussion among friends when something wacky happens. It also challenges players in vastly different ways, there are few games out there that reward players who can think on their feet and adapt to a situation. It can also create a situation where collectionist players can build and develop a collection they can be proud of. That's a big deal for some players, and the fact it's difficult often to keep that collection feeds that pride further.

    There is the discussion to be had of whether you can have that same experience when you interact with real money or with in game money. This is a bit muddy at the moment, discussion on this is constantly brought up with cosmetic micro transactions as well, however there is some merit to locking cosmetics behind a pay wall. It makes you commit more to your purchases, only buy the cosmetics you really want, and develop an identity within the game... Or it could make a person spend way more money on a game than they intended, no clear right answer. Adding a price to lootboxes does help, in that it prevents situations where an experienced player with lots of time on their hands gets access to everything, and surpasses the limitations lootboxes are designed to put on the player, giving them a situation that wasn't intended (albeit, giving that opportunity to the rich man instead).

    Magic: The Gathering is a Trading Card Game, that distributes itself through various different methods, but mostly from booster packs. You get a 11 common cards, 3 uncommon cards and a rare or greater card from each pack, very much the same structure as modern day lootboxes and a distribution model most every cardgame world wide now follows. It has been a tremendous reason why the game is still popular to some extent today, and has shaped the game since it's inception over 25 years ago. Because the game has been built this way, you have no way of knowing what is in your opponents deck. You can make educated guesses based on what other cards he's played, if his deck is following an archetype you can assume he's going to use the best cards from that archetype and can adjust your decisions accordingly, however there is a very real possibility they just don't have one in their collection. Or likewise a card might not fit their deck particularly well, but they run it anyway because it has sentimental value. This can create really interesting situations, and is a key reason why the game is still enjoyable and fun to this day. Trading for new cards also becomes a social event, and brings players together. This has been crucial for finding new players to play with, everywhere there are games hubs and hobby stores where people meet, you get to know other people who play, and if you don't have many people to play with, you quickly find you spend 12 hours building a deck and looking after your collection, only to play with it once and dismantle it for parts.

    Despite all that however, we do have to ask whether that is the experience we want in our game. Whether we want players trading, and unable to play certain playstyles just because we weren't lucky enough, which brings me to my next example. Whilst FortniteStW is a great game, there are a lot of issues regarding it's monetisation. You could just get plain unlucky and never find the class or subclass you want to play. the game celebrates a collection book for players to fill up for their own satisfaction, however whether they succeed depends solely on how much money they spend and how lucky they get. And do we really want players turned away because they don't have a playstyle or player identity? This can somewhat be fixed through trading and opening a player market, similar to how similar games like Warframe work, however we still have to ask whether that's something we really need in a game with easy matchmaking, and less of a demand for teamwork and coordination. Traditional card games, you need that social interaction from trading to find new players and get people together to actually play, you can argue it could help with Fortnite for making friends online and getting people together for larger and more difficult events that might require a little more pre-preparation and planning, however even then the game isn't significantly built to support teamwork, feeling more often than not a competitive game where you're trying to defend harder than everyone else on your team. This is a similar question we need to ask for cosmetic lootboxes in games like Overwatch and such, whether we want to lock cosmetics behind a dice roll. Personally I don't think this is using lootboxes well at all, I would much prefer to see them take the traditional, tried and tested microtransaction model, where you pay a little money and acquire the cosmetic you like. However there is no denying there is more money in Lootboxes, so I can't fault them for it.

    In conclusion, lootboxes still a solid tool games designers can use in their games, however it's veered away from what makes it a good system in the first place. Many developers have been introducing them to their games without fully understanding how to make them great, what makes them worth using in the first place? Hopefully with the backlash from games like Star Wars: Battlefront 2 EA and such receiving so much backlash for their misuse of lootboxes for profit, we will see the practice regain some of it's dignity, or maybe I'm just too optimistic.

6 April 2018

How different control scheme's can impact gameplay.

    With light in my recent gaming experience, a topic brought up in discussion is regarding simple control scheme's, and how they can influence gameplay. In the past, this discussion was about how we can make controls more intuitive, how we can remove the controller from the player's hands entirely. It was seen as a barrier to hinder players, and we had to do what we could to make controlling the character in game, as natural and intuitive as possible, however some recent titles have been breaking that trend. In this article, I wish to discuss the topic quite broadly, how gameplay can be helped and hindered by their controls.

    I will be talking about a wide variety of games, among them: Tekken, Friday the 13th, the Legend of Zelda, and Brother's: A tale of two sons. There is a lot to discuss in these cases, they are all interesting for very different reasons, with them being experiences that are rather fresh in my mind.

    Starting from the beginning, I'm a little late to the party on Tekken 7. Whilst I do have fighting game experience, for the longest time I played Super Smash Bro's, Brawlhalla, arena fighters rather than the more traditional Mortal Kombat's and Tekken's and Street Fighters of the world. I'm no stranger to the series, but I'm as good as one, I haven't played it since I was young, and the control's are vastly different to what I'm accustomed to as a result. The combo's felt unintuitive and alien to me, sidestepping was unnatural and weird, I was still expecting a button to block with, and none of that was present. And as a result it taken a little while for me to really start enjoying the game and get that feeling that what I was doing was of my own volition. This was a bit of both a positive and negative experience for me, negative because it's frustrating not feeling in full control of your actions in a game, but also positive because it was a breath of fresh air, a new experience that I am more than happy to embrace and experience.

    Another game I've been enjoying recently with friends is Friday 13th, the PvP Survival Horror game by Gun Media. This game is especially interesting, because it limits the players control, for a good reason. The setting pits a team of players against one Freddy, one monster. This sounds like it would be a walking nightmare to balance, either the survivors would be too strong and it would be impossible for Freddy to take them in large numbers, or Freddy would be too strong and it would be too easy for him to do his job against an isolated survivor. They have made animations long and commited, they have made you move fairly slowly, they have limited the tool's and information at your disposal, ensuring you have less options, and there is less of a difference between a good player and a great one. Reducing agency in this way has made the game much more balancable and enjoyable. One anecdote I have from my time with the game, was one player who was rather young, he was playing Freddy, and had his mic on by default. When he was chasing down other players, when he had them in his grasp, he was so ecstatic, giggling and laughing through the mic, talking to the players "I'm gonna get you," "you can't escape." genuinely having a the time of his life, having a power trip almost. This wouldn't have been able to happen if the players had more agency, because skill would trump the game mechanics too much. This kid would constantly be on the losing end of the stick, because there's always someone better than you, and he would miss out on this experience. Limiting control and agency allowed this experience to happen, and that's a great thing.

    the Legend of Zelda franchise, has always been celebrated for it's ability to utilise every tool available to them on their console. Games like Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword making full use of the Wii's motion control's (whether for better or worse,) or games like Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks finding uses for the second touch screen and microphone, one puzzle actually really stuck with me in Phantom Hourglass, where you had to close the Nintendo DS to transfer a mark from the top screen to the bottom screen. The heavy focus on innovation and new experiences are great for making every Zelda game unique and interesting to play, even despite them following the same formula throughout the series.

    My final case, is on Brother's: a tale of two sons, by Starbreeze Studio's. This is a game that was exceptionally well received for the way they used their control's as a metaphor. I won't go into spoilers here, however the way they laid out their control's was integral to the message they wanted to purvey. It would not hit the players anywhere near as hard as it did if not for their unique control scheme, they wanted the player's to really feel the impact of the ending, and were building up to it from the word go, even utilising the control scheme to make the player feel rapport between the protagonist and his brother.

    Funky control's can certainly be an interesting tool in the game developers arsenal, one that is largely under utilised. I am excited for games in the future that may use such techniques to make some interesting games. I welcome this trend of using control's for artistry and expression. Whilst some games certainly should strive for the older approach of removing the controller from the equation, games like Call of Duty and Forza Motorsport, it is a powerful tool, and not one that should be taken lightly.

2 April 2018

Weight behind mouse clicks, and amazing UI.

    As games got more advanced, as visuals and audio improved, one of the biggest developments was the inclusions of PhysX and programmed sound effects. Footprints, directional audio, cloth physics, hair physics, and the like, all were amazibg additions to games, to make them more immersive, more believable. In this article, I want to discuss the games that have been using this effect on a mouse cursor.

    I will be discussing two games around this topic, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, a collectable card game, and Pyre, a sports game/RPG hybrid. Both of these games are extremely well polished, and have positive UX design from head to toe. They are great examples to discuss because of how far beyond the call of duty they went to deliver a user interface.

    Starting with the former, one of the big talking points about Hearthstone when it first released, was the interactive boards they released for people to play on. This is the most standout example, when you load into a game, and the props around the playing field can be interacted with and do a thing. There's a 20 minute video of a guy rating them all from 3 years ago, showcasing them all. but it doesn't just stop there, when you click on the playing field itself, you get a little tap. There is a little dust, as though you just dropped a rock in the sand. You can pick up cards and hold them in your hand, move them around the battlefield. There's a little sparkle animation behind the card, to make it feel like it has movement and energy, the cards are 3D objects with weight and impact behind them, you drop a card on the field and see the dust cloud from their landing. The bigger the thing, the bigger the cloud, some extraordinary legendary cards even have special animations to make them feel more impactful. But it doesn't just stop in game, the menu itself, was completely designed to be an arcane board game box. The collection book, is a literal book that you flick through, like a real life card binder. Every button you hover over has a response, and all of it works together, you give weight you to your mouse. It feels satisfying to play, just playing cards, interacting with the interface, is enjoyable by itself, which to put it simply, goes a long way towards making the game great.

    These games go to such huge lengths to make their game feel immersive and satisfying, but why does it improve the gameplay experience so much? It's a difficult topic to discuss, however it all comes back to psychology. You see it a lot in animation, when you're discussing powerful poses, you need to portray information to the player in ways that aren't just written. Without that immersion, it's difficult for us to get a sense of what's happening on the screen. The entire study of media is relegated to making a scene, as impactful and as meaningful as possible. And these techniques are some of the best ways for games to achieve that. It's an incredibly minor thing, but one that can seperate a good game from a great one.

    Pyre is in much the same boat as Hearthstone, in that everything in the game is pseudo interactable. Whilst not on the same level as Hearthstone, it isn't really the kind of game for that, half of the game is merely dialogue and exploration, I've seen it described similar to The Banner Saga and the like. The parts where the user experience, and these weighted mouse clicks are important, they have been included. With things like interactable environments, examinable items in the wagon, mouse scrollovers for the nouns in the story, reminding you if you forgotten what or who a thing was. These give you a sense of immersion in the world, you mouse stops being just a cursor, and starts being an extension of yourself in this world, helping your explore this new space. Allowing you to really connect with the objects and characters in the world, as though you were really there.

    These techniques are new, and largely untouched as of the present day, however as more and more developers start to fully realise the potential behind them, it is clear that they are can perhaps produce some of the most impressive and immersive experiences we have seen yet. I am very excited for them, I hope what we see in 6 years time from these lessons blow me away, much like the games mentioned above have. Games have never been better, and we can only go up from here.